Why You Should Write What You Don’t Know

Today’s guest post is by author Beatrice Manuel.

We’ve all heard the golden advice passed down from generations of successful writers and authors etched into history. The great Mark Twain said it himself: “Write what you know.” I’m here to tell you to do the opposite of the status quo.

Going beyond my comfort zone was one of the best things I did, both for my creative path as an aspiring writer and as a freelance content creator. In 2017, I was sitting in my college dorm and watching my roommate read 50 Shades of Grey when it all began. She had a painful grimace on her face and, after a good ten minutes, put the book down with a huff.

“This isn’t turning out to be the spicy adult romance I wanted,” she said. “I need something to cleanse my palate.” She then turned to me, eyes widening. “Hey, why don’t you try writing a story in the genre?”

My knee-jerk reaction was to laugh. At the time, I was sitting comfortably on my self-appointed throne as queen of young-adult romance and contemporary stories. Writing a love story that was equal parts touching as it was sexy? That was a no from me.

But my roommate narrowed her eyes and said the three words she knew would get me rising to the challenge in no time, three words that kicked me off on one of the best writing experiences of my life.

“I dare you.”

And, boy, did I do that dare good. Here’s why you should too.

How Writing What You Don’t Know Can Liberate You

Many of the stories we share are about things we are comfortable with. We’re already familiar with what we’re writing about, and that makes the process easy.

When it comes to fiction in particular, I think a lot of us find it easier to write about things from our own experiences—things that are close to home, or that we can understand in an immediate and visceral way, or that speak to some aspect of ourselves or our own lives.

There’s nothing wrong with sticking to the basics of what you know when you’re first starting out. Familiar settings and characters make it easier for you to focus on the act of writing: grammar, spelling, pacing, dialogue, and all the other things that go into creating a good story. Eventually, it’s important to branch out as much as possible so that you’re building a well-rounded set of skills and experiences.

But there is another kind of writing that’s a little harder. It’s harder because you have less familiarity with it and because you’re maybe not even all that interested in whatever this new thing is—but you’ve decided to write a story set in this world or universe anyway.

This kind of writing can be incredibly valuable, personally and artistically. If you stay limited to the genre and topics you’re already comfortable with, there’s no room for growth.

It can be hard, but it also stretches your imagination and tests your powers of empathy in ways that go beyond the kinds of stories you might otherwise choose to tell—ways which are useful in just about any kind of writing.

Because if you’re going to write something truly original, then there’s a good chance you’re going to have to go where you haven’t gone before: into the great big literary unknown.

Tips for Embracing the Unknown

When I picture the kind of writer who might be reading this blog, I imagine someone who’s been scrawling away on a notepad under the covers with a flashlight since they were ten years old. That person has been doing this for a long time, and they’ve gotten pretty good at it.

But maybe they’re not growing as an artist. Telling a story you know can be a challenge, and it’s often easier to fall back on what you see as familiar. But when you do this, your writing will never grow and develop. You’ll be stuck in the same neighborhood forever.

By embracing the unknown, you can stretch your creative muscles and make great progress as a writer in ways you might not otherwise have done had you remained within your comfort zone.

Here are some tips to get you started.

#1. Research is your new best friend

It’s time to ditch the notion that you have to be an expert in a certain field from day one to write it well. You always have the option to learn and grow “on the job.”

If you want to write about something foreign to you, then research becomes your new best friend. If you’re writing about a gang of pirates out to conquer the world and need to describe how to tie a bowline knot, then look up an instructional video. Every little detail counts.

Before you ever put pen to paper (or fingers to the computer keys), start your research. This could mean reading books or articles, watching videos, listening to podcasts, speaking with experts, interviewing people familiar with the topic, or doing anything else that will help you learn about the topic before developing an idea for your piece.

Study the things you don’t know until you feel confident in writing about them.

#2. Immerse yourself in the new

I can’t tell you how often I’ve encountered writers who are unwilling to write about subjects that aren’t part of their daily lives. Yet we have all kinds of stories to tell about people who live in other parts of the world, or whose experiences are different from our own.

And there’s no reason we can’t tell those stories well if we immerse ourselves enough in the subject matter to learn about it and get it right.

The most obvious way to improve your writing is to read, read, read. If you’re exploring something new with your writing, you should immerse yourself in the genre. Make it a part of your daily life or routine in some way.

I’m currently writing a cyberpunk thriller, and it’s my first time in the genre. The month before I even started planning the novel, I watched classic cyberpunk films like Blade Runner, read guides on the genre, and even dabbled with an anime or two. By the end of the month, my mind was a cyberpunk landscape, and I was ready to dive into my vision for the novel!

#3. Talk to people who DO know it

Everyone has their blind spots. If you’re exploring a genre that’s new to you, you might have questions about the details and nuances of that genre. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

There’s nothing wrong with consulting seasoned experts in the field before you start writing. Most writers do. Even if you’re trying something new in terms of structure or style, too, don’t be afraid to get feedback at the early stages–even before your first draft is finished.

Consult beta readers and community threads on Reddit and even movie buffs. You’ll find that people who know a lot about a particular subject are happy to help out when they can see that you’re committed to writing seriously about it.

Chances are they’ll have their own perspectives on the topic that can help mold yours.

#4. Have fun with the learning

Good writing is supposed to be a pleasure to read. It should flow, it should keep throwing surprises at you and it should make you want to read more. The same goes with the process of actually writing it.

If you are exploring something new with your writing, an underrated tip is to simply have fun with it. Don’t get hung up on the details and try nailing it on your first draft.

It should be an enjoyable adventure, not one where you’re forced to deliver under the invisible pressure of perfect results.

Time to Go Exploring!

Writing what you don’t know won’t harm you—it might actually improve your skill as a writer. Don’t be scared to blur the lines between your favorite genres and try writing in one you’ve never tried before.

You never know where that unexplored idea you’ve left on the back burner might lead you. Mine led me down a path of confidence and growth.

I ended up rising to the challenge of writing that sexy, new adult romance. Not only did I have fun and discover I had a penchant for adult comedy and romance but the story also became a hit among readers!

The Closer’s first draft has over 4 million reads and was featured on Wattpad HQ’s Editor Pick’s list. I started posting the story on Wattpad, an online writing platform, for fun. Initially, the traction didn’t pick up, but once I became consistent with the chapter updates and the plot itself thickened, the readers started coming and haven’t stopped since. The Closer became a sleeper hit, and I’m grateful for all the readers I’ve gained on the platform. Now, I have a final manuscript polished and ready that I’m actively working on querying to agents.

I would never have guessed a dare to delve into new genres would bring me to this stage. I’m glad I took that leap of faith and one day, you will be too!

So, if you’re teetering on the line separating what you know to write and what you don’t, it’s my turn to repeat my roommate’s infamous words to you.

“I dare you.”

By day, Beatrice Manuel masquerades as a freelance writer and content strategist in the B2B niche. By night, she’s perfecting her writing craft, releasing visual poetry, or penning out her next great novel. She’s currently working on querying her hit new-adult romance The Closer. Want to chat? You can reach out to her on Twitter.

Featured Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

5 Responses to “Why You Should Write What You Don’t Know”

  1. Andie Patrick February 7, 2022 at 9:28 pm #

    When I blithely embarked on my first novel, I knew nothing about the craft of fiction writing. I decided to set my story in Tuscany, never having been to Italy at all. I found myself spending hours, sitting at the feet of Professor Google; learning facts about Tuscany and looking at pictures of Tuscany.
    I have set my subsequent stories in places that I do know well, but it has still been necessary to research details that I do not know. I’ve learned about such diverse facts as diseases of sugar-cane, and the process of selling a repossessed bankrupt property.
    So writing what you don’t know doesn’t only refer to trying a new genre; but to the content of your writing – whether you think you know your subject or not.

    • cslakin February 23, 2022 at 12:22 pm #

      Good points. Since fiction is about the character’s experience, so long as you show the locale through their eyes, whatever they would know and see, you are winning the battle!

  2. Vivienne February 9, 2022 at 7:27 am #

    I wrote fantasy for five books. I had read fantasy, watched fantasy, played D&D, so fantasy was what I should write, I thought.
    Then I started writing a Historical novel. I had a lot of research to do, about the Romans, the Celts, Roman Britain, Celtic festivals etc. It was fascinating. I’ve since written another set in Viking Britain. The next one is in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest. More research.
    Having said that, in my fantasy series, the Wolves of Vimar, Book 3, the characters were on a ship that was caught in a storm. I had to research how to handle a sailing ship in a storm. What to do when the mast broke, etc. That was also new, and something I didn’t know.
    So you don’t have to change genre to write what you don’t know, just put your characters in a situation that is unknown to you, and research it.
    I had great fun doing all this research.

  3. Johnny February 21, 2022 at 3:26 am #

    I agree with your points, and I love to explore new things. Writing blog posts from last year, and helps me to make better decisions and choices, clear up my thoughts, and make me happier. I write up my thoughts and write what my heart says. I have a lot of written memories, and now I am thinking of publishing a book soon.

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